On Wednesday October 14, Ryan Kernan, Assistant Professor of English and Affiliate Faculty in Comparative Literature, presented his research at a Brown Bag lunch. Professor Kernan approached the recurring question of the relationship between Langston Hughes and Nicolás Guillén through the figure of Cuban writer, translator, and political activist José Antonio Fernández de Castro. By focusing on Fernández de Castro, Kernan argued for a comparative reading that does not fetishize difference by promoting untranslatability but rather uses intertextuality to read the political resonances of translated texts.
The presentation began with a reading of a political cartoon that established the terms of racial debate in Cuba in the period before Hughes’ Spanish translations. Then, Kernan focused on Fernández de Castro’s pseudonymous translation of Hughes’ “Brass Spittoons.” Kernan close read the poem in English and Spanish translation in order to identify the places where Fernández de Castro deliberately chose words that diverged from Hughes’ version in order to recast the poem with an explicitly proletariat political orientation. By considering the importance of Fernández de Castro’s work on this translation as well as his larger orchestration of the poetic relationship between Guillén and Hughes, Kernan’s comparative reading traces the way that black internationalism was formulated in a specific local context. Kernan argued that when critics claim that something is untranslatable or incomparable, this claim often reveals a lack of imagination. In contrast, his reading of the differences that emerge in Hughes’ Spanish translations offer fertile sites of comparative work on black internationalism.